The Punisher should challenge audiences.
Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) seems like he should have been a much better fit on the Netflix streaming shows than in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. After all, the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones had demonstrated that Netflix could commit to a level of violence and a moral ambiguity befitting the complicated and controversial comic book character. Unfortunately, the character’s appearances in Daredevil and The Punisher demonstrated a curious lack of commitment.
The Punisher has a complicated legacy. American military and police units unironically appropriate his iconography. This is unsettling as those organizations should exist to uphold the very values that Frank Castle has rejected. The Punisher is often the story of an angry man with a gun imposing his order on a world he believes to be broken — subtext impossible to escape given his Netflix show premiered just a month and a half after the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history.
As with most comic book characters, Frank Castle was the product of a particular time and place. That time and place was New York in the 1970s. The antihero first appeared in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru. The issue was cover-dated February 1974, arriving five months before the Manhattan-set vigilante thriller Death Wish hit cinemas. There was something in the consciousness.
The 1970s were a turbulent decade in America, following the end of the Vietnam War, the scandal of Watergate, and an economic recession. The decade was particularly turbulent for New York City. The city faced a fiscal crisis. Between 1969 and 1974, 500,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared. In October 1975, President Gerald Ford ruled out any federal bailout for the near-bankrupt city, prompting the New York Daily News to run the infamous headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
The New York of the mid-1970s was viewed as a city in a state of collapse. By 1974, murder and manslaughter rates were more than twice what they’d been in 1964. In 1975, a coalition of public-sector unions calling themselves the Council for Public Safety published a pamphlet distributed to tourists, titled “Welcome to Fear City.” There was a surge in civilian anti-crime activities, from civilian patrols to volunteer “block watchers.” Vigilantes like “the Guardian Angels” worked to keep the city safe.
This New York created the Punisher, a city that would almost tear itself apart towards the end of the decade. As Gerry Conway has acknowledged, the Punisher spoke to something in the zeitgeist. He contextualized his creation, “You had Dirty Harry. Death Wish had come out as a book I think. There was a series of novels called The Executioner. The notion of the lone vigilante doing things that society couldn’t do was kind of in the air.” Frank Castle could be judge, jury, and executioner.
When Frank Castle first appeared in Netflix’s Daredevil, the show initially seemed to understand this. He materializes in the second season premiere of Daredevil. The episode seems to take place in an odd time warp to the New York City of 1977, with news reports of a heat wave “with no end in sight” recalling the rising temperatures of that turbulent summer. A character remarks that the city “is about to explode,” recalling the unrest of that year.
Of course, times change. Crime rates in New York City are now closer to the 1950s than to the 1970s. Times Square has been reinvented as a tourist haven where the biggest crimes are the prices. These days, the suggestion of a gun-toting urban vigilante is less likely to conjure up Charles Bronson working his way through a series of increasingly depressing Death Wish sequels than it is to suggest controversial real-life cases like Bernie Goetz or George Zimmerman.
This is the push and pull of the Punisher. Many of the best creators to work with the character have understood the inherent paradox of Frank Castle — the simultaneous revulsion and intrigue around the man who brutally murders criminals with no recourse to due process. Writers like Frank Miller, Garth Ennis, Jason Aaron, and Greg Rucka understand that Frank Castle should horrify audiences as much as he appeals to them: Frank Castle might kill monsters, but he also is a monster.
However, Daredevil and The Punisher are wary of the baggage that comes with the character. The shows are reluctant to let Frank Castle become the vigilante figure from the comics. The show tries to humanize Castle, to present him as less absolute and less ruthless. When Frank catches Turk (Rob Morgan) selling guns, he declines to execute the criminal. This is obviously because Turk is a character who recurs across the Netflix shows, but it also makes Frank less of a killing machine.
Daredevil and The Punisher push Frank Castle away from the urban crime that had defined the character for so much of his existence. In Daredevil, the murder of Frank’s family is reworked from a botched mob hit into a military conspiracy involving his former commanding officer, Colonel Ray Schoonover (Clancy Brown). In The Punisher, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is reimagined, transformed from a pulp mobster into a former brother in arms who served with Frank in Force Recon.
This shift narrows the scope of Frank’s rules of engagement, but it also misunderstands the horror of that origin. In the comics, the death of Frank Castle’s family was a freak accident, like the death of the Waynes. The world is arbitrary; it is impossible to impose order on the chaos. The world is so random that Frank could lose everything in a moment. In contrast, a conspiracy proves the opposite: Everything makes sense, everything fits together, everything is ordered.
In the comics, Frank’s origin story is a detail that perhaps explains the character’s unending war on crime. Frank kills criminals in general, not just those tied to the murder of his family. As reimagined in Daredevil and The Punisher, Frank Castle’s traumatic origin becomes a singular drive. Frank isn’t interested in criminals in general. Frank is driven to avenge his family, exposing a convoluted conspiracy that spans both the second season of Daredevil and the first season of The Punisher.
As a result, Frank’s arc in Daredevil and The Punisher feels much closer to the conspiracy thrills of 24 than it does to the brutal violence of Death Wish. It is a calculated move designed to make Frank more palatable to modern audiences. After all, viewers might balk at a brutal and unapologetic killing machine murdering his way through a city of strangers, but it’s easier to root for a character directly avenging the loss of his family.
The Netflix Marvel Universe consciously attempts to de-problematize Frank Castle. In doing so, it turns the character into a much more generic protagonist. However, Frank Castle should be problematic. The character should make audiences uncomfortable. He should challenge viewers, by asking them what they are comfortable with and why. The Punisher should be a bitter little pill that forces audiences to consider their attitude towards violence and whom they deem acceptable targets.
Many superhero stories are power fantasies. It is interesting to compare those fantasies against an angry man with a gun and to ask why that fantasy has such staying power when contrasted with billionaire industrialists, gods of thunder, and teenagers with the proportionate strength of an arachnid. The first season of Daredevil asked probing questions about masculinity, and Jessica Jones grappled with hefty themes of its own. This should have been the perfect forum to explore the Punisher.
Instead, Daredevil and The Punisher coated that bitter little pill in sugar and never looked inside.